Let me tell you about knives.
The first knife came when my mother was 14.
Water was running hard in the sink splattering the dishes my mother was washing while screaming at her little brother, nine years old and left in her charge. “You need to clean the house. I am not going to do all the work around here. You need to get your butt moving. You’re old enough to take some responsibility, god damn it.” Flowery kitchen curtains rustled in the tiny rented house. Must be from the vibration of sound because the Georgia air was still and heavy. He was screaming, “You aren’t my mother. You can’t tell me what to do.”
He didn’t bother mentioning his father, since his father pretended that he didn’t exist. Convinced that despite the fact that this scrawny beanpole of a boy with ears sticking out like a mouse looked just like him, this couldn’t possibly be his child. His wife must have had an affair, like he did. After all he couldn’t possibly be the one at fault. It was her fault. She had never really loved him. He was her consolation prize after being left at the altar.
“Your mother left me in charge of you,” my mother screamed right back at her brother. Their parents had divided them even though they were in the same house. My grandmother responded to her husband’s lack of attention to their son by showering all of her attention on him. My mother and her brother raged in response, sniping and yelling, ever at odds. The rage in my uncle grew with each and every unsaid word of his father, and each and every said word of his sister. She was not his mother, no one was his father. He would not do what she said, he would not do what anyone said. He would make her shut up though. He grabbed the knife on the counter and threw it across the room at her.
Whizzing past her ear, it stuck in the wall, vibrating.
The second knife came when my mother was sixteen.
Sweet sixteen with a hundred beaus. Walking home from Grady High School with her new lilac blouse and her white skating skirt. Unconcerned and unaware, her brother was still in school. Their division sliced open with the shock of that first heaving allowing a friendship to emerge.
My mother hummed to herself the soundtrack from that last picture show she had gone to. Nearing 4th avenue, she heard raised voices outside the door. She rolled her eyes in adolescent disdain. Her parents fighting was not uncommon. She thought about waiting it out on the porch, but the air was sticky with heat, like a smothering blanket. They didn’t have air conditioning but at least inside the ceiling fan would move the sluggish air around. Though the desire to avoid conflict rose in her, it wasn’t enough to choose to pause her steps. Their raging was so loud they didn’t hear her enter.
Her mother was thrusting a knife towards my grandfather’s stomach. He was holding both her arms pushing the weapon away from him as she gyrated like an epileptic fit. “Stop it, stop it, Doris,” he was ordering. “How could you, how could you, how could you,” she was raving.
My mother screamed. The knife clattered to the floor.
The third knife came when my uncle was fourteen.
He had been down at the drug store, quitting his job there because he was going to start playing drums in the clubs on weekends. Their parents were separated now, cleaved in two by that second knife. My mother and grandfather lived on the other side of town. The siblings hadn’t seen each other for the first year of their separation, but their aunt had reamed out my grandfather, so they were able to reconnect.
Kids ran wild in the projects where my uncle lived, and he loved it. He had learned to fight, but he always did it with his fists. Riding home on his bike his legs pumped like he could outrun poverty. The ride felt like freedom and the sound of jazz played in his mind. He thought about just riding around for a few hours, but his Mom would be tired and sore and needing him. Ditching his bike just inside the door of the apartment, he heard water running in the kitchen. He hurried his steps when he heard weeping. His mother was leaning against the sink, holding a knife to her wrists.
My uncle leapt to her side.
The fourth knife came when I was eleven years old.
The bus dropped me off at the top of the street. I strolled home breathing in the hibiscus and bougainvillea. Warmed by the sun and contemplating passing by home entirely to head into the canyons. Something stopped me though, and I went into the house.
My mother was in her room. She had only just moved out of the large bedroom she had shared with the man who owned the house. The man who let her stay here. Neither of us were completely sure if he was going to let us stay now that she wasn’t sleeping with him. She moved into the guestroom. The bed had this awful blanket of red and black paisley. She sat at the dark desk, the one I had liked to write at before she moved into the room. She was staring so intently she didn’t move when I entered. Staring at three objects in her lap; a knife, a few bottles of pills, and a Bible.
“I don’t think I can kill myself because I looked it up and it says that it is an unforgiveable sin.” My theological brain thinks, “that’s the wrong interpretation,” but a wiser part keeps my mouth shut. “But if God takes my life, then it won’t be a sin,” she continues on. “So, I am just praying, praying that God will take me life.” She looks up at the sky fervently. “Kill me God, take me away from this life.” I wrap my arms around her. “What about me?” my childhood brain asks, but my older part says, “it’s okay Mommy, it’s okay.”
My mother weeps.
The fifth knife cut into my lover before I knew her.
She was in prison at the time. I can’t remember if it was the time that she was in prison for attempting to kill her mother’s murderer or if it was the time she was in prison for forging checks to get cash to buy drugs. Either way, there in the cells she had been fucking one girl, and naturally, she went and fucked another. So that first lover came at her with a knife.
I traced the long scar on her belly, a rough purple line against the soft black of her skin, black like a Labrador, or volcanic rock. I traced it with my finger, then I traced it with my tongue, and then I took that phantom cock, cut off when she was just a baby, reborn in rubber and mind, into me. Her moan low and mine rising, she cut into me.
I came in knives.
The last knife is one hardly anyone sees.
Blades cuts into these bodies when they die, into every body. The flesh begins to go rigid from the creeping rigor mortis and lifeless bodies must be prepared for the fire or the coffin. My grandmother after the arthritis took her; my mother after the cancer took her; my lover after hepatitis, emphysema, COPD, drugs and heartbreak took her. All those stories overlapping. The places, circumstances, and people changing but the same struggle rippling down through the generations, one reborn into the next, like a record stuck in the same spot, skipping and skipping and skipping.
Open staring eyes looking away into some unknowable distance, everything becomes completely silent like a vacuum has momentarily sucked up all the sound in the world. Until the knock on the door, and suddenly everything is loud, louder than it was before and there are forms and procedures and rituals. When the body stops working, then the professionals come. They used to be neighbors, family, mourners, but now they are the surgeons, the coroner, the funeral worker, all cutting into their bodies as if it were just an ordinary thing.
They use their tools, each and every one sharp, but it is death. Death is the last knife, the knife that cuts us all.
By LM Neal